20 March 2007

Class categories

A friend of mine was just alluding to Paul Fussell's book Class: A Guide Through the American Status Systems. I found a list of Fussell's categories, and they're interesting.

Top Out of Sight — Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don't want us to.

Upper Class — Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don't have to work. They refer to tuxes as “dinner jackets.”

Upper Middle — Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn't be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.

Middle Class — The great American majority, sort of.

High Proletarian (or “prole”) — Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term “proletarian.”

Middle Prole — Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)

Low Prole — Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask “Would you like fries with that, sir?” as a career.

Destitute — Working and non-working poor.

Bottom Out of Sight — Street people, the most destitute in society. “Out of sight” because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don't vote.)

That's more slices than in Ruby K. Payne's terrific A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which is a chaotic but insightful book that does a a simple split into only upper, middle, and lower classes that is really illuminating about the cultural elements of class, especially around “common knowledge.”

I have seen a flyer circulated which summarizes Payne's system:

Moneyto be spentto be managedto be invested
Personalitysenses of humorachievementconnections
Social emphasisinclusionself-sufficiencyexclusion
Timein the momentagainst futuretradition
Educationabstractsuccess & moneymaintaining connections
Languagecasual registerformal—negotiationformal—networking
Family structurematri-archalpatriarchalwho has money
Driving forcesrelation-shipsachievementfinancial & social

Payne's model runs deep but having just three categories leaves a lot out.

I'm not a real sociologist, but I think of class in the US in more categories, to reflect some cultural distinctions among folks who may overlap in wealth and income but do different kind of work and have different culture and distinct social networks. I think it can be an oversimplification to imagine a simply linear heirarchy, so here is my own set of categories:

High, middle, and low aristocracy
Inherited wealth. Low means rich enough not to have to work, medium means able to afford the trappings of wealth, high means hundreds of millions of dollars or more. As Fussel observes, these folks spend their wealth making themselves invisible, especially as you move further up the scale.

Major and minor celebrities
This includes not only obvious movie and pop stars but also big-name politicians, a few entrepeneurs like Bill Gates, atheletes, and so forth. Fame is a different kind of currency than wealth, and it comes with its own social circle and culture. “Major” celebrities can presume a permanent place in this class; “minor” celebrities cannot.

Nouveaux riche
Entrepeneurs, CEOs, and so forth who have made enough money that they don't have to work ... but almost certainly continue to work, and work hard. These people may have wealth comparable to the middle aristocrats; at the point where they have as much money as high aristos they are better conceived as part of that artistocratic class, while at the low end they blur into the richest end of high professionals.

High and low professionals
People who make their living with some valuable mental skill. High professionals include successful doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives who make a lot of money ... but not enough that they can just quit working. Low professionals include just about everybody else who works in offices, from architects to customer service representatives, which means a broad range of actual income.

People who make their living with some valuable knowledge. Professors, scientists, and other experts of various kinds, including many artists. Often mistaken for professionals, but these folks have more (and stranger!) books in their houses. Again, covers a very broad range of actual incomes.

People who devote themselves to art or entertainment (though that last may simply mean entertaining themselves). Musicians, actors, bartenders, sex workers, nightclub bouncers, twenty-four hour party people. Keeping late or odd hours is a key defining characteristic. Incomes vary dramatically in this class, though they tend to be low.

High and low working class
People who make their living through physical work. The high working class have valuable skills, like plumbers or construction workers, while the low working class don't.

People working, often working hard, but perpetually worried about money because they're a paycheque away from economic disaster and homelessness, and don't have a route to improve that situation.

People unable to connect to the above-board economy. This ranges from the hungry homeless to folks currently hustling up wealth on a par with the upper end of the low working class ... but without any stability even at the day-to-day scale.

Notice that in American society, practically all of the people ranging from the high professionals to the low working class refer to themselves as “middle class.”

(This version includes an update to my original version which did not include Bohemians.)

In The 3-ladder system of social class in the U.S. Michael O. Church offers a really instructive system with some parallels to my own, though the take on the relationship between class and culture is different. The description of the Elite ladder and of the forms of friction between the different ladders are particularly useful.

Typical depictions of social class in the United States posit a linear, ordered hierarchy. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there are 3 distinct ladders, with approximately four social classes on each. Additionally, there is an underclass of people not connected to any of the ladders, creating an unlucky 13th social class. I’ll attempt to explain how this three-ladder system works, what it means, and also why it is a source of conflict. The ladders I will assign the names Labor, Gentry, and Elite.

In a follow-up, Church has more cutting observations, calling this machinery obfuscation of how there are really just two classes.

I do have strong thoughts on how that article has aged. At the time, I was unduly sympathetic to my native social class, the Gentry. This blinded me to something I had begun to suspect, and that Alex Danco articulated– that a sociological “middle class” is a comfortable illusion, a story capitalist society tells itself to mask its barbaric nature, performing a similar function to the notoriously clueless middle manager, Michael Scott.
To do Marx justice, we must note that Marx did acknowledge a middle class’s existence: he wrote on the petite bourgeoisie, the small business owners and independent professionals. He predicted, correctly, that they would be losers in the ongoing class war– that machinations of the politically-connected, mostly-hereditary haute (or “true”) bourgeoisie would push them to the margins and, eventually, throw them into the proletariat. Marx did not loathe the petite bourgeoisie and he did not overlook their existence– he simply recognized them as powerless relative to market forces and the movements of history. What they gain through innovation and comparative advantage, they lose over time to the superior political and economic power of the real elites, who never compete fairly.

(If you have an interest in the tech industry, Church's comments marry well with Putt's Law Of Failure from his darkly satirical book Putt's Law and the Successful Technocrat.)

Sideria has a discussion of class which underlines the functioning of the cultural differences between classes.

It is a common misconception that the primary obstacle to being in a much higher class is money to afford the things by which one performs that class. The limiting factor is not money, it is this: it is impossible to join a culture the ways of which you know nothing. You may come by money, but the ignorance of how to use it to perform that higher class will keep you out as adamantly as if there were a wall built around it.

In the course of his post Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment John Michael Greer of the Archdruid Report has a sharp little observation about social class categories.

It so happens that you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking—there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment—it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary, an hourly wage, or a government welfare check. People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.

Greer has some very unwholesome politics, but this is one example of how he can be illuminating.

Elseblog I have an old post which accumulated some smart comments about this observation by Brad Plumer:

One way to define class — and this is hardly an original thought — is to look not at income but at power. Power in the workplace. Power in the world. The working class, from this point of view, can be defined as those who do their jobs under strict supervision, have little control over what they do or how fast they do it, and have no power over anyone else. Notice I picked this definition somewhat deliberately; these are precisely the sorts of people who, under labor law, can join a union. Obviously the definition's not hard and fast. I'm in a union, after all, because at work I technically get no input into the Mother Jones budget, and have precisely zero authority over any other employee. So that's the law. In practice, though, I do have the ability to hire, promote, and fire interns, I get to work at my own pace, and have wide discretion over what projects I want to pursue. So I'd put myself in the middle class, even if I make far less, income-wise, than many who would be considered working class. Intuitively, this classification makes far more sense than calling me “working class” and, say, a well-paid, unionized electrician “middle class.”


d a r k c h i l d e said...

One of the big enlightenments of my youthful, teenage years was found in 10th grade when my economics teacher explained the economic catagories and the level of weath/income needed for each of them.

I had grown up with my mother and father telling me how we were wealthy and "better off" than many others. I remember being told how to be nice to those who "don't have as much" and other things that would indicate to my young mind that we were in the upper-middle class.

Then I say the statistics and learned that we were actually in the LOWER middle-class and barely scraping along to fit in there!

My mother just wanted SO MUCH to be in the upper class that she convinced herself (and me for a while) that we WERE there...

perspective...it's quite a thing!

I like your break-down of class categories...but it is interesting how you are using the groups on an "effort"-scale rather than a wealth-scale.

batojar said...


I think the phenomenon you describe is one of the primary reasons political discussions of class (and usually the subsequent discussions of taxes) are often non-starters in this America. *Most* Americans consider themselves rich or very well off (except those in the working poor category and below - they know what the score is)or envision themselves soon to be rich. They don't want to tax "themselves" even though they are largely by no means rich -and generally unlikely to become truly rich.

Well, that phenomenon, and a lot of very poor framing on the part of the Left.

Anonymous said...

Was just discussing the vagaries of class while in Britain last weekend.

These catagories are helpful to the conversation.

Kate said...

Are you ill? Traveling? Bored with blogging?

Miss these insights into your life and times.



J'Carlin said...

I find a hidden but critical subclass of the Professional and Intellectual classes that I call change effectors (borrowed from biology). These are the people who understand the impact of their particular contribution on the larger society and change that impact for the improvement of that society.
All to many professionals and intellectuals are essentially assembly line workers. The project falls off the feed line, bounces off the floor, is picked up, placed on the white board, solved, and the button pushed for the next one on the feed line.
The change effector has an extra white board where "what did I learn" is noted before the "next" button is pushed. And uses that accumulated knowledge to change the way the line works.
These people are the Salman Khans who see beyond the endless stream of lecture halls, day after day, to a new way of teaching. To pick one famous example.

Jonathan Korman said...

Carlin, there's definitely something to your point about how people with different temperaments approach their work and affect the organizations in which they operate. But I'm not sure that this tells us much about the social-political order of social class.